The new season has barely started and yet as the final preparations are made for the Australian Open – it starts on Monday – Melbourne Park has a very familiar feel to it: who can beat Novak Djokovic?
It is a question the top men have been trying to answer for the past two years but, so far, Djokovic has left them stumped.
Andy Murray has been busting a gut to try to find a way to upset the world No 1 but since he beat the Serb to win his Wimbledon title in 2013, he has come up short time and again. Since that victory in SW19, Murray and Djokovic have met 11 times and Murray has won just the once. No matter, the Scot is now firmly established as the world No 2 and now that he has Amelie Mauresmo back from maternity leave and back in harness as his coach, he is approaching his opening match against Alexander Zverev on Tuesday with focus and optimism.
“We spent 10 days training in Dubai together [before Christmas], which was nice,” Murray said. “And then it’s good to get down to Australia early – not only for the getting used to the conditions and stuff, but to be around Amelie for three weeks before the Aussie Open is important as well.
“We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the game and how I can improve, and hopefully it will pay off.” Mauresmo may have been focused on her young son, Aaron, for the past five months and Murray could be forgiven for being distracted by the impending birth of his first child next month but neither of them ever does anything by halves. If Mauresmo is back on the road, she is back to work flat out; if Murray is in Melbourne, he is here to win. And, even though he has a 21-9 losing record against his old rival, Murray believes that locking horns with Djokovic over the course of a career has made him better with every passing season.
“Obviously you want to continue to improve and you always have to look at the best players to try to do that,” Murray said. “I think that’s something throughout my career that’s been difficult, that the level of the guys around the top of the game have always been so high.
“At the same time, it’s been lucky in a way. I‘ve had to improve my game every single year. Novak’s consistency last year – I mean, he made the final in every single tournament bar one, which was his first one of the year in Doha – it’s unbelievable. So yeah, I need to find a way to get closer this year.”
At least Murray will not have to concern himself with the world No 1 until the final weekend. As the No 2 seed, his place on the opposite side of the draw from the Serbian was guaranteed and as all the other names were scattered across the draw sheet, Murray’s quarter remained relatively user friendly.
Opening against the 18-year-old German hope, Zverev, the Scot will soon be into tournament mode. Tall at 6ft 6in and spindly at just 13st 7lb, Zverev won the ATP’s Star of Tomorrow award last November having started the year ranked No 137 in the world and ended it at No 83 and he has been marked out by his peers as one to watch.
Potentially, Murray would then face the No 32 seed Joao Sousa before taking on Bernard Tomic, seeded No 16, in the third round.
Tomic, as only Tomic can, made few friends at the rain-delayed Sydney International on Friday when he pulled out of the event citing a bit of fatigue and a bit of food poisoning. But when he revealed he had seen his Australian Open draw before his Friday match, he incurred the wrath of all those who had paid good money for tickets to watch him – he all but admitted he had tanked his match against Teymuraz Gabashvili.
“When I was warming up I saw my phone, I got the text of the draw and it was very good for me,” he said.
“Feeling sick, playing two matches today, it was going to be very difficult. For me the best idea was not to play. I love Sydney so much, it was a shame I couldn’t be 100 per cent today.”
If Murray were to beat Tomic, he could find himself in a quarter-final meeting with David Ferrer, world No 8 and a man he has beaten 12 times in 18 meetings. That would set him for up a semi-final against either Stan Wawrinka or Rafael Nadal. And if he gets that far, anything is possible.
All Murray knows is that if he lives up to his seeding, he will, in all probability, be facing the world No 1 two weeks tomorrow. And that brings us back to the original question: how do you beat Novak Djokovic?